Most of the time, an album that kills off a career is either a critical failure, a commercial flop, or both. Rarely is it a smashing success that captures an artist or band at their absolute peak. And it’s almost never an album that establishes an act as the biggest in the world – putting them at the level of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or even The Beatles. After all, that kind of an album usually prolongs rather than shortens careers.
That makes Synchronicity by The Police the rare example of an album that both made, and destroyed, a band.
The Police had been on a steady upward trajectory since their 1978 debut album, Outlandos d’Amour. Each successive album sold better than its predecessor, while Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland amassed an enviable string of hit singles that ensured their inevitable greatest hits collection would be a big seller (indeed, the band’s 1986 compilation, Every Breath You Take: The Singles is their second-best selling album in the U.S. and their best-seller in the U.K.).
Then came 1983’s Synchronicity, which transformed The Police from rising stars to biggest band in the world. The album went 8x platinum in the U.S. alone, where it spent 17 consecutive weeks at #1. The album also produced four monster singles that hit the Top 20 in both the U.S. and U.K.: “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain” and “Synchronicity II.”
There was one big problem. While the three members of The Police had always had stormy relationships with one another, things had reached their breaking point by the time Synchronicity came out.
In retrospect, it’s surprising that Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were able to make things work for as long as they did. From the start, the three strong-willed men seemed like an odd match. For one thing, they all had different musical backgrounds. Before The Police, Sting had played in a jazz/rock/funk fusion band, Summers had come from a blues/jazz background and had played with several well-known artists including The Animals, and Copeland had drummed for a prog rock outfit.
At first, their differing sensibilities propelled the band forward, producing new, unique music that didn’t sound like anyone or anything else. Their first three albums blended elements of punk, pop, New Wave and reggae, propelled by Copeland’s propulsive and dynamic drumming, Summers’ deceptively complex guitar playing and Sting’s songwriting prowess. Long before he was known for being a Tantric-fueled rock god who would collaborate with anyone at the drop of a hat, Sting was an ex-teacher adept at weaving complex and erudite lyrics with catchy, unique-sounding music to churn out hit after hit. At their height, The Police were a combustible supernova equally capable of either tearing down the house or tearing down each other. “We were in this state where any little incident would turn into World War III,” Copeland recalled in a 2000 episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.
That kind of dynamic couldn’t last. What had always been chalked up as “creative tension” between three alpha males with strong opinions about how the band should sound turned into intense personal and even physical warfare as the band got more popular. There are more than a few band interviews in the 80s where band members will not-so-jokingly start hitting or wrestling each other.
By the time the band recorded Synchronicity, the three men couldn’t stand to be in the same room with one another. While holed up in George Martin’s AIR studio in Montserrat, Copeland stayed in the dining room where his drums were set up, Sting was holed up in the control room and Summers was the only one who actually used the studio space. Sting and Copeland got into such a vicious argument during the recording of “Every Breath You Take” that producer Hugh Padgham threatened to quit and the band nearly broke up.
Ultimately, the band soldiered on and released the album that would turn them into global superstars. Synchronicity is typically seen as more accessible than previous efforts. Musically, that’s probably true. For one thing, Synchronicity’s four singles are more mainstream than their counterparts off prior albums- “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” notwithstanding. Meanwhile, keyboards and synthesizers are more prevalent on this record – especially on tracks “Synchronicity I,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “King of Pain,” and “Walking In Your Footsteps.”
There are some traces of the old Police sound on the album, particularly on “O My God,” which sounds like a spiritual successor to “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” (“O My God” also contains a lyrical shout-out to “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”). Meanwhile, the Copeland-penned “Miss Gradenko” contains a lot of the reggae elements that the band was once known for. Otherwise, with the exception of the avant-garde (and borderline unlistenable) “Mother,” which was written and performed by Summers, Synchronicity is basically a New Wave/pop album.
Lyrically, however, Synchronicity is one of The Police’s darkest albums. Sting, who wrote or co-wrote all but two songs on the record, was going through a divorce at the time. He was also struggling with the notion that being a worldwide superstar hadn’t made him as happy or fulfilled as he thought it would.
I think these lyrics are the best I’ve ever done. And, yes, it’s been a year of hell and torture for me… And I know that without that torture and without that pain – without that awfulness – those lyrics wouldn’t have been as good… I just want to say that if there’s a feeling of sadness in any of the songs, it’s genuine.Sting interview, “The Musician,” June 1983 (quoted here).
Combine that with the ongoing turmoil in his band, and it’s clear that Sting was in a pretty bad place when he wrote songs like the stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take,” the cynical account of suburban ennui “Synchronicity II,” and the bitter tale of manipulation and domination “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” Meanwhile, “King of Pain” contains some of the darkest lyrics Sting has ever written, and when combined with the first-person narrative style of the song, sounds like a cry for help. Of course, the upbeat music and the metaphorical lyrics make it easy for the listener to overlook all of that.
Synchronicity confirmed that The Police had become Sting and His Deputies, and that the talented frontman/songwriter was ready to step out on his own. To be fair, Summers and Copeland were capable songwriters in their own right. Summers’s instrumental composition “Behind My Camel” won the band a Grammy, despite the fact Sting refused to play bass on it. Meanwhile, Copeland wrote the band’s first single, “Fall Out,” and actually wrote or co-wrote about half of the band’s second album, 1979’s Reggatta de Blanc.
Nevertheless, the two had long accepted Sting’s superiority as a songwriter – ultimately to their detriment. Glenn Frey liked to talk about “song power” and how that translated to real power within a band. Well, Sting had been in command for The Police for a while, and he had never been shy about throwing his weight around. According to Summers, when the record label wanted to release his composition, “Omegaman” as a single, Sting raised a stink and the label backed off for fear of upsetting the golden goose. Meanwhile, Copeland noted that Sting had stopped turning in rough demos and asking his bandmates for input – instead, he would create nearly-finished songs and expect the other two to add a few bells and whistles. “[By 1981] the fragile democracy has become a dictatorship, and Sting’s agenda, although veiled, is obvious. He does not want to be in a band,” Summers recalled.
With Synchronicity’s success, The Police had reached the kind of rarified air of worldwide superstardom that only bands like the Rolling Stones, Beatles or U2 have ever reached. Their collective success had the side-effect of opening up plenty of individual avenues and options for each bandmember. Soon, each member of The Police realized that he could do the things he wanted without the other two, and that grass was starting to look pretty green on the other side as the Synchronicity tour wound down. Sting wanted to go solo and dabble in films, Summers had various side projects he was involved with and Copeland had a budding career as a film scorer. “From that high vantage point, everything else looked real easy,” Copeland told Behind the Music. “It’s the arrogance that comes from that kind of success combined with the fact that we really had this feeling that The Police was a golden cage. So we had to melt down the golden cage.”
After a successful world tour culminating with a sell-out show in August 1983 at Shea Stadium in New York (the site of the Beatles’ last full concert), Sting decided to call time on The Police. Other than a few shows in 1986, an acrimonious attempt to record new versions of their greatest hits that only yielded one song, an impromptu set at Sting’s wedding in 1992 and a one-off reunion when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, the members of The Police went their separate ways and embarked on solo ventures that kept them busy and far apart from one another.
Of course, by going out on top, The Police only left everyone wanting more. When they finally reunited in 2007 for a thirtieth anniversary world tour, they made a killing at the box office, grossing over $360 million – still one of the highest-grossing tours of all time.
But their reunion would not include any new recordings. That was probably for the best. “The truly wounding battles where we had plenty of time to consider, in cold blood, the best way to hurt each other – that was in the studio,” Copeland recalled to Behind the Music.
Perhaps that’s why Synchronicity remains the most recent Police album. Or maybe they knew they’d never top their greatest work.